Argue More!

Argue More!

The point of arguing with an author is not to “win” the argument. 

Quite the opposite. The point of arguing with the author is to work with the author.

Mihir Mahajan, regular reader of EFE, raised some questions about my post the other day on middle income traps.

It might help to take a look at the chart from the earlier post before you go through his questions.

Here are his questions:

  1. “The 1960 vs. 2022 nature of graph and the 1-6 ratings of income are quite confusing”
  2. “The “middle income trap” is too dense and you pointing to Nicaragua shows that the journeys of different countries could be going in different directions within that group”
  3. “The range of 1.75-3.75 on both axes is deceptive though. While the higher scales 4+ is rich in general, the relative gap between India/Nigeria and China is very high — not sufficient distinction there.”
  4. “Putting China in “middle income trap” is odd because it has gone from below 2 in 1960 to above 3 in 2022 (based on the axes).”

Before I get around to answering his questions, I have a question for you. 

Do you have any questions of your own, for having read his questions? Go read my post again, stare at the chart, go over Mihir’s questions, and then think about whether you have any questions of your own.

I’ll answer each of Mihir’s questions below, but the point of this post is really what follows after, so please do stick around until the end!

  1. “The 1960 vs. 2022 nature of graph and the 1-6 ratings of income are quite confusing”

    Yup, absolutely. It takes a while to figure out what is going on in an Economist chart, and while that is a problem, I’d argue that the rewards are usually worth it. By the way, if you are an Economist subscriber, you absolutely should read their newsletter on visualization and charts.

    A useful principle to keep in mind is that when you look at a chart, train yourself to not look at the data first. First be clear about what is on the axes (all of them). Then be clear about the title of the chart. It helps to take a look at the source of the data. Then start taking a look at the chart itself.

    Homework: what does “income per person, relative to the United States, log of %” mean? Can you explain this phrase to somebody else? If you can’t, you haven’t understood it well enough!
  2. “The “middle income trap” is too dense and you pointing to Nicaragua shows that the journeys of different countries could be going in different directions within that group”

    The central square in the chart is too dense, but that’s just fine by me. Why? Because the outliers are then even more worthy of analysis. If you cannot “make it” into the central square, then you’re even more special relative to that crowded space.
    Botswana is special because it was poor in 1960, and is not just middle-income today, but on the verge of breaking into the high-income space. That’s a special story!

    Argentina, on the other hand, is special for the wrong reason. It was a high-income country back in 1960, but has since slid down into a middle-income country grouping.
    Both of these countries, within the context of this chart, also help you understand Mihir’s second comment here. Because this is a static image, and because we’re comparing two different points in time, we don’t get a sense of the trajectory of a country. Botswana is on the way up, and Argentina has slid down – but you need to know this separately. This isn’t clear from looking at the chart.

    To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of the chart, but rather a way of recognizing that your work as a student doesn’t stop for having studied the chart. Au contraire, this chart should spur you to read more about whichever country seems interesting to you.

    “Tell me more about Botswana’s growth story over the last sixty years or so. Assume I know very little about Africa in general, and Botswana in particular. Your answer should include Botswana’s internal politics, key leaders, relationship with her neighbors and with the superpowers during the cold war, her natural resources and some background on major ethnic and religious groups in Botswana”

  3. “The range of 1.75-3.75 on both axes is deceptive though. While the higher scales 4+ is rich in general, the relative gap between India/Nigeria and China is very high — not sufficient distinction there.”

    Log scales can be tricky, and the best way to understand this is by thinking about how earthquakes are measured. And yes, Mihir is spot on about how you need to keep this in mind. The lower ends of the middle income square (left to right and bottom to top) actually cover very large ground, and countries in the left-bottom corner are very different from countries in the right-top corner of the middle square. Dividing the middle square into a 3×3 grid would be a great idea. (Hi, The Economist. Hint, hint)
  4. “Putting China in “middle income trap” is odd because it has gone from below 2 in 1960 to above 3 in 2022 (based on the axes).”

    It’s their chart to make, and ours to interpret as we see fit, so while I get where Mihir is coming from, I’m fine with both the boundaries of the middle square, and with the framing that The Economist has used. China’s growth trajectory over these past sixty years or so has been fantastic, but the question is about whether it can keep that break-neck growth rate up going ahead. A very wise economist won a Nobel Prize for coming up with a simple model that says “Nah, probably not”. So while I understand Mihir’s point, I can see the logic used by The Economist as well. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but macro is hard.

But now that I’ve replied to his comments, let me come to the main point of today’s post.

What stops us from asking questions as we read? Why, that is, do we read unquestioningly?

Maybe that’s too specific a question, so let me step back and frame it more generally. 

Why don’t you argue more often with whatever you’re reading?

Make sure you understand where they’re coming from, and that you understand their line of reasoning, to the extent possible. And also that you understand how and why they reached the conclusions they did. You don’t have to agree with either the line of reasoning or the conclusion, to be clear.

But asking smart, probing questions about both the premises and the conclusions can help you become a much  more engaged reader. This, in turn, can help you to both understand what you’re reading, and to decide whether you agree with the author.

It’s a rare old skill, and I’d encourage you to apply it, always, while you’re reading.

So please, disagree more with what you read on my blog, and let me know of your disagreements.

Help me learn better!

Microeconomics and Credit Card Reward Points

A lovely little article in the New York Times is worth a ponder, especially if you are a student of microeconomics:

There’s an undeniable feeling of excitement when you turn your daily credit card swipes at Starbucks into first-class airfare or a weekend jaunt to Costa Rica. Thanks to mobile banking and the ease of autopay, you can scrupulously avoid any additional costs by paying your monthly bill in full. Free flights and exclusive discounts abound.
Something for nothing, right?
Not exactly nothing. Credit card perks for educated, usually urban professionals are being subsidized by people who have less. In other words, when you book a hotel room or enjoy entry to an airport lounge at no cost, poor consumers are ultimately footing the bill.

As you probably already know, one can “earn” reward points for spends on your credit card. You can then use these points to buy stuff, or earn cashbacks on these points, or spend them at partner stores. And there are other perks and benefits too. If you’ve travelled through an Indian airport, you might have seen the crowd waiting to get into an airport lounge – more often than not, access is tied to the kind of credit card you have in your wallet.

But remember, there is no such thing as a free lunch. You may not be paying for these perks as a credit card holder, but one of the first lessons of economics is that somebody, somewhere, is paying for it. So who is paying, in this case? As the last sentence in the excerpt makes clear, according to the article, that someone is the group of poor consumers.

Some background, based partially on the article in question, and partially on my own understanding of this space:

  1. Richer consumers are likely to spend more, but tend to not revolve much, if at all. To this group of consumers, a credit card is a way to get a (up to) 45 day interest free loan, with the added bonus of these reward points to boot. Remember, incentives matter – and these reward points are the carrot that is offered to people in order to get them to sign up.
  2. Dangling these reward points as a carrot makes business sense, for that allows a credit card company to sign up folks who will spend more via these credit cards. Credit card companies make money when people “revolve” – that is, when they spend using their credit cards, but do not pay up the entirety of their credit card bill on time. How much money do these companies make? Here, take a look.
  3. So consumers who take a credit card, spend a lot on it, and pay back the entirety of their credit card bill – these kinds of customers are actually a loss-making proposition for the credit card company.
  4. Consumers who spend a fair bit, find themselves unable to repay the entirety on time, and end up paying over months (if not years) – these customers are where the credit card companies earn their bread and butter (and jam and peanut butter, while they’re at it).
  5. Consumers who borrow a lot using their credit cards, and default on these loans – these are the very worst type of consumers for credit card companies. Risk departments in such firms exist to predict which consumers should be denied access to credit cards, and which of the existing customers are likely to default on their credit card loans.
  6. But broadly speaking, the NY Times article says that it is pt. 4 consumers (and pt. 5 consumers) who end up paying for the freebies that pt. 3 consumers enjoy. (but also see below, after this section)
  7. In addition, another way to make money for these credit card companies is to charge higher credit card processing charges to all consumers. This fee changes from country to country, but as a thumb-rule, assume it to be around 1-2% of each transaction. That’s not an exact estimate, but good enough for us over here. Rewards to specific folks, to be offset by diffusing the costs of offering these rewards across a much wider group, in other words. And note that merchants (who are charged these fees) will usually pass these fees on to the consumers. See here, for example.
  8. A 1-2% increase in price may not be the end of the world if your income is high enough – it is an inconvenience, not a crisis. But for low income earners, already on a tight budget, this price increase across all transactions can bite a fair bit.
  9. An out and out free market economist might say that this is fine, the market will work itself out. That is, if this 1-2% charge is an act of rent collection, new entrants in such a market will end up charging lower to no fees, and incumbents will be forced to respond by lowering their own fees. That’s econ 101, but life is more complicated than that.
  10. And that is a good first-pass answer, but as many people will tell you, markets don’t always work as designed or intended. Incumbents will go out of their way to prevent new entrants (through lobbying, through pricing, through R&D, and through a dozen different ways), which is why regulation is important.
  11. But will regulators do what they’re supposed to? What are their incentives? How can we make sure that regulation will be balanced between the interests of the incumbents, the new entrants, the potential entrants, and the customers? Hello, industrial organization, and hello, public choice.
  12. What is the role for government in all of this? In terms of participation (think UPI, for example, but note that this is a complicated story in its own right), in terms of regulation (both from a domestic and international financial markets perspective) and in terms of oversight?

All these points (and I hope you come up with more) are worth thinking about as a student. Remember, these points aren’t proven facts – they are a summary in part of the article an in part of my own reflections for having read the article. Discussions such as these are a great way to outline a research agenda – but that is when the job of a researcher begins. Can we convert these points into testable hypotheses? Can we get data to prove/disprove these hypotheses? Can that data then be used to reach a definitive conclusion? Can that conclusion be used to formulate policy, or start a business?

In terms of research about this topic, sample this from the conclusion of a paper on the topic: “While credit card rewards are often framed as a “reverse Robin Hood” mechanism in which the poor subsidize the rich, our results show that this explanation is at best incomplete.”

But also from the very last paragraph of the same paper:

We conclude by documenting that the costs and benefits of credit card rewards are unequally distributed across geographies in the United States. Credit card rewards transfer income from less to more educated, from poorer to richer, and from high- to low minority areas, thereby widening existing spatial disparities.

And here’s the link to a directive from the RBI about the issuance of and conduct regarding credit and debit cards in India.

Homework: who (ultimately) pays for CRED from a distributional perspective? Whatever your answer, explain your reasoning, and either provide data to back up your arguments, or explain what kind of data you would need to research this question further.

Try discussing this question with your friends and your professors (including ChatGPT, and yes, you should be thinking of it as one of your professors) – it will be a great way to learn the nuances of microeconomics!

My thanks to Mihir Mahajan for suggesting this topic.

Why is it bad to be rich?

Navin asked this question on Twitter recently:

(My thanks to Mihir Mahajan for pointing the tweet out to me, and for requesting for a post on this topic)

My current plan is to answer this question over three posts. In today’s post, I’ll try and answer this question using a first principles approach. That is, without using Google, or ChatGPT3, or my notes and references, I’ll answer this question using nothing more than what I think are the basic, foundational principles of economics.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll trawl through the internet (and make use of ChatGPT3), and throw in articles/blog posts I’ve bookmarked over the years that speak to this point. And finally, in the post the day after tomorrow, I’ll speak about books you might want to read about this topic.

But even before having written down a single word re: my first principles argument, here is my answer in short: it is wonderful to be rich.

Six principles, if you ask me, that you absolutely must learn if you are a student of economics (and note that whether you like it or not, everybody is a student of economics):

  1. Incentives Matter
  3. Trade Matters
  4. Costs Matter
  5. Prices Matter
  6. Externalities Matter

As I was telling somebody the other day, most – if not all – problems in economics can be thought of using these six principles. If you truly understand these six principles and all of what they imply, you will be able to reduce every economic problem you meet down to the application of these six principles. The applications may be nuanced, there may be more than one principle applicable, and you may have to supply a lot of caveats. But you’ll go a very long way towards tackling your problem of choice by starting with these six principles.

And I’ll fire my first salvo at Navin’s question by deploying the third principle in the list: trade matters.

People get rich by trading with other people. Sure, people have gotten rich in the past (and in some cases, even today) by expropriating property, through loot and through dacoity. But I hope you don’t think I’m ducking the issue by saying that’s not the focus of today’s post. My focus in today’s post is about people who get rich through peaceful, voluntary trade. This particular process of getting rich focuses on offering you, through entirely peaceful, non-coercive means, a trade.

You are free to evaluate the terms of this trade, and if they seem agreeable to you, you enter into this trade. Note that the only reason you do is because you think that doing so is to your advantage. You are better off for having done this trade, relative to the option of not doing so. And the person who offered this trade to you is presumably better off for you taking the other end of it, for why else would she have offered you this trade instead?

That’s a non zero sum game, and the more we play such games with each other, the better off we are. That’s what the principle of “Trade Matters” means, and that is what it entails: peaceful, voluntary trade leaves both parties better off, and the world is therefore better off for this trade having gone through. If, as a consequence, both parties get richer, that’s A Very Good Thing, and it is therefore good to be rich.

But remember that for some problems, the applications of these principles may be nuanced, and that there may be more than one principle applicable.

First, opportunity costs. TINSTAAFL stands for There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, and even to a non-zero sum game, opportunity costs are very much applicable. In the context of international trade, your level of analysis matters. Trade might make sense at the level of the parties involved in the trade, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody else is better off as a consequence:

Because in the case of trade between countries, as opposed to trade between individuals, there are people who will lose out. If a university in the United States of America hires me to teach online classes to the students over there, there isn’t a hypothetical amateur cook who is losing out. There is an actual person in that country who could have taught this course, but is no longer able to because of me.
The university that hired me is better off, because it is able to hire the services of a teacher for less money. To the extent that I do about as good a job as the person I replaced, the students are (at least) indifferent. And given how strong the dollar is, I am certainly better off!
But it is not enough to say that both parties in this trade are better off (I and the university). A complete economic analysis should also include the person in the USA who is out of a job, and I would argue that one should also include what I find myself unable to do here in India as a consequence of teaching that course abroad. Both of these are the opportunity costs of this trade, and a complete economic analysis should include these aspects as well


Trade might then, at the margin, cause an increase in inequality. You’d be surprised at how old (but still somewhat underrated) an idea this is, but the opportunity cost of more trade might well imply an increase in inequality. So you might well say that it is bad to be rich because the opportunity cost of you being rich is that somebody else is (comparatively) poor.

But be careful with how you proceed with this! It cuts both ways, this analysis. Is the opportunity cost of reducing inequality a reduction in the creation of wealth? When you attempt to reduce inequality by taxing the rich, you reduce their incentive to trade. And remember, they get rich by voluntarily trading with you, and if that trade leaves you better off, you’ve made yourself poorer in the bargain.

If you tax Amazon so much that Amazon decides it is better for them to shutter up altogether, have you made the world better off or worse off? I’d urge you to ignore your first, visceral take, and take a look at your Amazon app to find out how often you’ve ordered from Amazon in the past month before answering this question.

So I’d argue that it still is good to be rich – but it ain’t for free. But in my opinion, the price is worth it. One can, and one should, argue about what the appropriate level of taxation should be. One can, and one should, worry about tactics used by Amazon to make sure that they remain a monopoly provider of certain goods and services. One can, and one should, worry about whether Amazon pushes its employees a little bit too much. I’m not defending Amazon as a perfect company without flaws. But I very much am saying that the world is a better place because Amazon exists. There are costs that we bear for having Amazon in our midst, but those costs are worth it.

And I picked Amazon as a stereotypical example here, but the argument is about the underlying idea, not about the specific organization. Trade matters, even after acknowledging that there are opportunity costs involved with trade.

We’re trading right now, you and I. You’re paying me with that most precious of all commodities in the year 2023: attention. And I can’t begin to thank you enough for having given me your attention so far, because I know that reading this ain’t easy. Pleasurable, hopefully, and worth your while – but not easy. And you’ve chosen to continue to pay me with your attention because what you’re getting in return – the pleasure you feel in tackling my arguments – is worth your while.

But how do you know that it is worth your while? You could have been doing something else with this time. You could have been learning how to code. You could have finished at least part of some project or an assignment. You could have picked strawberries. You could have milked a cow.

The point is that you could have been doing something that actually earns you cold hard cash, instead of reading this article. And it is your assessment of your own opportunity costs that allow you to continue reading this article. You know that you can ‘afford’ to spare the time required to read this article.

But how do you know this? You know it because you are part of a national (and global) economic system that depends upon the principle that ‘prices matter’.You have at least an implicit valuation of how much a minute of your time is worth, and you have made the rational decision to ‘spend’ this time reading this blog.

What is my point? My point is that we know how much it costs to enter into a trade only if we know how much that trade is worth to us, and we only know how much a trade is worth to us by having a sense of what we’re worth to society. Trade matters is a principle that works only if we know the price of a good or a service, and we know the price of a good or a service best in a free market economy. Deciding how much to produce something, and deciding at what price to sell it is a truly difficult problem to solve in an economy that is not based on markets.

So yes, trade matters, but so do prices.

But speaking of prices, it gets trickier still.

  1. What if you set prices to not just lure the buyer into buying your product, but at a price which is so attractive to buyers that your competitors cannot afford to match it? What if they go out of business as a consequence, leaving you as the only game in town? What if you then raise prices?
  2. What if you use patents to make sure that others cannot sell the same goods that you are selling? What if you abuse the patenting process to stymie the competition? What if you then become the only game in town, and raise prices to eye-watering levels?
  3. What if the price at which you sell the product you are selling does not take into account the damage done to the environment?
  4. What if the buyer isn’t aware of further purchases she might need to make for having bought your goods? What if she realizes later that the true price of the good in question is much higher?
  5. What if the buyer is tempted into buying the product because of shady marketing techniques?
  6. What if you lobby with the government to make sure that nobody else but you can sell the product that you’re selling? Will you then be able to charge a higher price?

Each of these questions merits a much deeper exploration than is possible in this blogpost (for those who are interested, or wondering, here are the topics you want to think about in the case of those six questions: monopoly | propoerty rights and patents | externalities | asymmetry of information | microeconomics/ behavioral economics | public economics). These topics would just be the start, there are many nuances to consider in each of the six questions. But for having raised these six questions, and the two separate arguments I’ve made in the last two sections above, here is my answer to Navin’s question about why it is bad to be rich:

It is bad to be rich if you live in a world without a fully operative price system, and/or a world in which non-voluntary trades can take place.

Interpret that sentence however you like, but begin to worry if you are convinced that there is only one interpretation, or if you are convinced that your interpretation is the only correct one!

I write on this blog for many reasons, but chief among them is a very personal reason. I would like my thinking, and my writing, to be become clearer and better over time. I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say that there are days on which I think I succeed in this endeavor, and there are days on which I don’t. But taken as a whole, I am convinced that I am a better thinker and writer than I was in 2016, which is when I started this blog.

Far from perfect, in case it needs to be said, but the benchmark isn’t perfection, the benchmark is Ashish of 2016. And on any given day, it is the Ashish of the previous day. One day at a time, as it were.

And one thing that has happened over these past six years is that I have become better at distilling in my own head what economics ultimately comes down to. Six microeconomic principles, and three big picture questions. I have outlined the six principles above, and I have written about the three big picture questions before, but here they are once again:

  1. What does the world look like?
  2. Why does it look the way it does?
  3. What can we do to make the world a better place?

Students who have learnt from me these past six years will be familiar with this list. But there is a crucial component that is missing in this list of six principles and three big picture questions: time. On my blog, I have attempted to get around this problem by speaking of an alternative framework, which I have shortened in my head to the CHIC acronym: Choices, Horizons, Incentives and Costs:

The trouble is, our brain isn’t always the best at interpreting incentives correctly, which brings us to the third key concept in economics: horizons. Or, if you have had enough nerd talk for one day, we could also call it the instant gratification monkey problem. Call it what you will, the problem is that we tend to prioritize choices that payoff in the short run, but create problems in the long run. If you’ve ever had that last “one for the road” drink, or ended up actually eating that second dessert (and who hasn’t?), you don’t really need an explanation for this. We tend to choose those options that payoff over the short horizon, and ignore the long term consequences.

I have also written about time, and how it is ever-so-confusing to think about it in the context of economics. In my classes, I show students the circular flow of income diagram, and once they’ve understood it, I ask them to think of it as a video, rather than a still picture. That is to say, time matters.

Time matters.

Go and read the responses that Navin got on his original question on Twitter. I sent this essay that you are reading right not to some people, and they highlighted this same problem – they thought of intergenerational problems about being rich. Inheritance and the perpetuation of inequality across time, for example. Almost the entirety of my blogpost tomorrow, where I will share many articles that answer Navin’s question, focusses on this issue.

So here’s a question I have been grappling with for a while: should I update my list of six principles (Incentives matter | TINSTAAFL | Trade Matters | Costs Matter | Prices Matter | Externalities Matter) to also include Time Matters? And if yes, how do I expound upon this principle?

Here’s another way of thinking about this issue – one of my objectives on this blog is to teach economics to anybody and everybody. So ask yourself this question – what do we need to do to simplify economics down to its absolute bare minimum? Will somebody who has learnt about economics by attending my classes, or reading my blog, be able to answer Navin’s question? And the short answer to this question is yes, they will. But in an incomplete fashion, because in the context of this question (and many others besides), time matters.

Time, as it turns out, really and truly matters. And for me to teach this principles, I need to try and understand it better myself.